Finding the Perfect Words

by Brian Branscum

“Ash fell from the sky” – Brandon Sanderson, The Mistborn Series

“There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.” – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

       “I am your father.” –Darth Vader, Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

There’s an old cliche that says, “Words have power.”

It’s true.

Whether they are words on a big-screen TV or type on a piece of paper, words have the power to impact our memories and invoke emotions of joy, dread, sadness, or even anger.

So what makes words powerful? What makes certain lines like “[Luke], I am your father” or even “Do a Barrel Roll!” (Star Fox 64, Nintendo) so memorable? Well, as I mentioned before, the right word choice can have a powerful effect on the emotions. Darth Vader’s words give us a sense of confusion. “Do a Barrel Roll” is such a ridiculous and funny statement that we can’t help but laugh.

The right words for the right situation can have a powerful effect.

To explain this in more detail, I’m going to borrow one from a writer I’ve recently come to respect: Brandon Sanderson. The first quote above is a line he uses repeatedly through his first novel of his Mistborn Trilogy: The Final Empire. I don’t know about you, but when I find myself describing something in a scene, I go over the top. If I had written that quote, I’d probably say something like: “Sparkles of ash flakes descended from the sky over the volcanic wasteland.”

Bit of a mouthful. Good thing Sanderson isn’t me. Instead he uses five simple words to introduce his world. “Ash fell from the sky.” These five words have a great deal of power and are an excellent set-up. First word he uses is ash. Immediately, the imagery of volcanos, blackness, and death pop in your head. With that first word we know this isn’t the typical fantasy setting with fluffy unicorns and smiling dragons that we’re used to.

Then there the next words: fell from sky. It might be different where you come from, but ash typically doesn’t fall from the sky unless a volcano’s erupting. Later on we read that “Ashfalls weren’t that uncommon in the Final Empire …” so, within the first two lines, we get one distinct impression about that this world is, in fact, dead.

We get a sense of a dead planet out of five words. Five words! In five words the author has incited our curiosity (how did this world die?), fear (is anyone alive?), and wonder. We want to read the story.

Every word matters. And finding the perfect words give your writing great power.

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